In 2016, Nintendo fans were ready to burn the house down over Metroid Prime: Federation Force. The first game in the franchise since 2010’s ill-conceived Metroid: Other M, Federation Force was neither the return to the side-scrolling formula that longtime fans pined for, nor a sprawling first-person adventure in the tradition of the Metroid Prime trilogy. Instead, what Nintendo gave us was a squad-based multiplayer shooter, a Halo-lite in chibi trappings, with series protagonist Samus Aran relegated to a supporting role. Most players that actually bothered to give Federation Force a chance found it to be fantastic in its own right, but in spite of everything it had going for it, it was doomed from the start for everything it was not.
What a difference a year makes. Metroid: Samus Returns—unveiled seemingly out of nowhere at this year’s E3 and released on 3DS a mere three months later—marks the true, honest to goodness, no-you’re-not-dreaming return-to-form fans have begged for from this series since 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission. Although Samus Returns is a remake of an earlier game, like Zero Mission before it, it is brand new in all the ways that matter. And it’s good—so good, in fact, that pixel purists may find themselves grudgingly accepting that a classic-style Metroid need not be built on bitmaps. Metroid: Samus Returns may not do much to move the series forward, but it accomplishes something even more important: correcting course for a franchise that had seriously begun to lose its way. Samus is back, baby, and she’s still got it.
The story and structure of Metroid: Samus Returns is practically identical to its source material, 1991’s Metroid II: Return of Samus. Samus Aran, fresh off her recent victory over Mother Brain and the Space Pirates on Zebes, is tasked by the Galactic Federation with the complete and total annihilation of the Metroid species. To accomplish this, she takes the fight to the Metroid home world, planet SR388. Nesting inside SR388’s interior are roughly 40 of the deadly organisms, and as Samus hunts more and more of them down, she is able to delve deeper into the planet’s subterranean core, where more advanced evolutions await.
From there, the two games diverge significantly, and appropriately for a series built on open-ended exploration, that begins with the planet itself. The landscape of 2017’s SR388, while hewing to the general layout of the 1991 version, is far more complex than that of the earlier game. Locked doors, which were used sparingly in the Game Boy version to signal nearby weapon or suit upgrades and needed only a handful of missiles to open, are now peppered liberally across the planet, with many requiring advanced weaponry to unlock. Wide open spaces have become complex mazes, forcing players to solve navigational puzzles not only to collect hidden items, but simply to push forward. These changes align Samus Returns far more closely with Super Metroid or Metroid: Zero Mission than with Metroid II, but they also help the 3DS game stand apart from the Game Boy version. Unlike Zero Mission, which effectively replaced the first Metroid in most fans’ eyes, Samus Returns and Metroid II can co-exist for those of us who still enjoy the 1991 version.
As part of the shift toward the Super Metroid formula, there’s a far greater reliance on abilities in Metroid: Samus Returns, and in addition to the full suite that’s been carried forward from both the Game Boy and Super Nintendo games, MercurySteam has added some of its own ideas to Samus’s arsenal. Of these so-called “Aeion” abilities, which are powered by their own separate energy meter, most feel like built-in cheats for players who are having trouble with what is admittedly a very difficult game. The Beam Burst is handy during boss battles when you’ve run out of power missiles, while Lightning Armor absorbs damage—especially useful when you’re dealing with the gargantuan late-game antagonists. There’s even something called the Scan Pulse, which takes all the hard work out of locating hidden passages and collectibles. My favorite Aeion ability, Phase Drift, builds on and inverts the Speed Booster powerup seen in earlier games: by slowing down time around Samus rather than increasing her rate of movement, it not only allows her to race across crumbling blocks, but to avoid rapid-fire enemy attacks as well. It’s a shame it’s not used more frequently.
So Samus has all of her abilities from before, and then some. But she also has a couple more tricks up her sleeve. 360-degree aiming, made possible by the 3DS Circle Pad, lets the bounty hunter dig in her heels and target enemies with pinpoint accuracy. It’s not a game-changer, but it feels great, and it’s absence will surely be conspicuous next time I revisit any of the earlier Metroid games. More significant, though, is the new melee counter, which is seemingly inspired by the dynamic combat in Metroid: Other M. Every single creature in the game has a brief moment during their attack animation where they’ll flash and charge at Samus, and if players hit the melee button at the right moment after this flash, she’ll swing her blaster arm upward, knocking the enemy back and revealing its weak spot. From here, Samus’s attacks do significantly more damage, and most regular enemies will go down with just a couple of shots. Melee countering can feel owerpowered once you’ve mastered it—especially in the first half of the game—but it becomes a secondary consideration once Samus’s arsenal is fully upgraded and she’s able to cut through most enemies like butter.
But it’s not the regular enemies that set Metroid II and Samus Returns apart from the rest of the series—it’s the Metroids themselves. In Samus Returns, each Metroid encounter plays out like a mini-boss fight: Samus, locked inside a chamber with one of the parasitic terrors, is forced to take it out before she can move forward. These battles are dynamic, unpredictable, and thrilling, and thankfully—unlike MercurySteam’s previous 3DS game Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate—are completely devoid of quick-time events. Every battle is heavily reliant on player skill, and until you’ve learned how to take each Metroid down, you should expect to die, die, and die some more. Although there are really only four basic Metroid evolutions to contend with—Alpha, Gamma, Zeta, and Omega—MercurySteam has kept them from becoming rote by varying up the circumstances under which you’ll enter each encounter. One Gamma may have electric affinity, while another uses flame attacks. Some Metroid chambers might be so small that you have no choice but to move in dangerously close to your quarry, while others are large enough to attack from afar. Metroids will even flee the battle from time to time, forcing you to track them down again in different locations. All told, Samus Returns’ Metroid battles are vastly improved over their Metroid II versions; they were terrifying when I was eight, but I’ve grown up a bit since then. I do miss how random those encounters felt, though; Samus Returns has a built in Metroid radar that alerts you when you’re close to one.
Metroid: Samus Returns is a big game—the biggest side-scrolling Metroid so far, in fact. My first playthrough clocked in at around 10 hours, with another hour tacked on for 100% completion. By comparison, an average playthrough of Zero Mission, Super Metroid, or Metroid Fusion takes me roughly 4 hours, while I can do Other M in about 7 (including its hour of unskippable cut scenes.) To counter some of the inevitable tedium of backtracking across such a huge expanse, MercurySteam has wisely chosen to break the map up into eight discrete areas; they’ve also introduced Teleport Stations to SR388, which let you travel quickly among various locations scattered across the planet. Before I played Samus Returns, I never really envisioned myself using them; now that I’ve finished it, I can say without hesitation that they’re absolutely crucial to the experience. The map is simply too big to ignore them.
You can certainly make it through Samus Returns in less time than I did, but for your first time through, you shouldn’t. MercurySteam’s vision of SR388 begs to be explored, and appreciated. Like Mirror of Fate, Samus Returns utilizes the 3DS’s stereoscopic display to remarkable effect, giving players a window into a world that feels vast and alive, despite its minuscule real-life scale. Waterfalls shimmer in the recesses of lush caves replete with overgrown vegetation, hinting at an ecosystem that might have been peaceful once upon a time. Enormous crystalline lifeforms lumber about in the background, oblivious to all conflict as they forage for their next meal. Purple mists enshroud mysterious glowing structures, burning off to reveal the ruins of a once-thriving Chozo empire that was only hinted at in Metroid II. Foreground elements are no less impressive: character models and animation—particularly those of Samus and her major antagonists—rival those created for the Metroid Prime games. I was thrilled the first time Samus twisted into one of her famous poses as I aimed at a far off target, or when she yanked a Zeta Metroid off the ceiling with her Grapple Beam. Music is a treat as well, though it’s a bit inconsistent: atmospheric remixes of Ryoji Yoshitomi’s compositions from Metroid II convey the same sense of wonder and dread as Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original Alien film, but the more bombastic tracks—particularly those that were ripped from games like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime—feel out of place here. I’ve always appreciated how SR388’s themes stood apart from those used for the other games, and as much as I love the series’ music, I just didn’t really appreciate hearing the Magmoor Caverns theme pop up here.
Metroid: Samus Returns may not be the final first-party release on Nintendo’s now seven-year-old hardware, but it would be a hell of a sendoff if it were. It’s a near-perfect triumph of design, both in terms of MercurySteam’s ability to deliver on such an important project, and of Nintendo’s understanding of what made the series so special to begin with. With MercurySteam working under series creator Yoshio Sakamoto’s guiding hand, Metroid’s future has never looked brighter. Here’s hoping Nintendo agrees.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Metroid: Samus Returns is based on a retail copy of the game provided to us by Nintendo. The game launched on Friday, September 15th, 2017.